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Introducing 60-Second Solar : A family installs panels on its roof

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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When I was a kid, energy was fun. I used to write to utility companies asking for their brochures on nuclear power and then sit and study the cutaway diagrams of reactors. I devoured futuristic visions of cities where everyone drove whizzing electric cars and wore stylish white jumpsuits. I dreamt of becoming an astronaut to help build solar satellites to beam power to the ground.

Today, saving energy is less about fun than about simple and pure desperation. There’s nothing to focus your mind like being a homeowner and facing stiff, and rising, monthly gas and electric bills. My wife and I had always wanted to live in a romantic old house with creaking floorboards, and seven years ago we finally got that wish, only to be confronted with the fact that the Victorians didn’t know about R-values. (Those indicate resistance of insulation to heat flow, if you didn’t know either.) All our grand plans for sprucing up the bathrooms gave way to retrofitting wiring, blowing in insulation, and wrapping steam pipes—all worthy uses of our time and money, but not as calculated to impress dinner guests as heated toilet seats.

Installing solar panels has always been on my list of things to do. They’d capture a bit of those boyhood futuristic dreams. They’d save money. They’d impress dinner guests. They’d give me some off-grid cred with my Alaskan friends.

The only trouble has always been sticker shock. I can think of better ways to spend the kind of money it would take to install solar, like eating. In a brief burst of enthusiasm last year, I looked into state subsidies, only to find that New Jersey’s fund had run out and that the Federal solar tax credit offered a paltry $2,000, which seems like more of an insult than a serious act of public policy. So I put solar on the back burner. (The solar refrigerator wasn’t even a thought.)

Then my old friend Greg Feldberg — who lives in Maryland and has begun writing about his own solar installation — sparked me back to life. This year, New Jersey has replenished its fund, our local utility has started to offer loans for solar installations, and the limit on the Federal tax credit has been lifted. So my wife and I are going to do it, and I’m going to chronicle our progress with regular posts in 60-Second Solar.

We’ll describe some of the steps we’ve taken to button up our house, show you pictures of the installations in progress, look at state and Federal subsidies, and get into bigger questions such as whether these subsidies are really such a wise idea for the country. Although the nitty-gritty of solar power seems far removed from the futuristic visions I loved as a boy, I figure it’s only through incremental steps that the world becomes a better place.

So join us as we embark on this solar—even if we’re not slipping the surly bonds of Earth—adventure. Maybe you’ll share your own solar installation stories.

Editor’s Note: Scientific American‘s George Musser will be chronicling his experiences installing solar panels in 60-Second Solar. See all his posts here.

George’s house, pre-solar

Rights & Permissions

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  1. 1. hotblack 5:04 pm 02/25/2009

    I run my island office in the Northwetst Territories with one cell atop the roof trickling into a two battery tank. It lights the place, powers two computers, and keeps the food cold. Even during overcast weeks, we’ve run everything 8 hours past sundown and didn’t use it up.

    After spending time up there recently again, I’m starting to wonder why we’ve come to accept that we all need households that consume so much more energy than that.

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  2. 2. ronwagn 5:47 pm 02/25/2009

    As lighting and computers etc. are designed to use less electricity, stand alone alternative energy becomes more viable. I can’t see that keeping food cool in the Northwest Territories should even be an issue though! I could keep all my food in the garage four months out of the year , even here in Illinois. Even longer if I made ice, and dug a hole for it.

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  3. 3. mperloe 5:37 pm 02/26/2009

    Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation Announces Solar Energy Project

    Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta is pleased to announce that on Friday, January 30th, 2009, that Soenso Energy will complete the installation of 20 solar photovoltaic (PV) modules, constituting the first phase of a 108 solar module array. The Congregation is combining solar energy and energy conservation to reach its ultimate goal of zero carbon emission. The Congregation undertook this project under the leadership of its Earth Ministry Team and in reverence of Unitarian Universalists seventh principle, respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Upon completion the array will generate 2,540kWh/month of clean electricity from solar PV offsetting the same amount of electricity generated by coal-fired utility power plants will have the equivalent of one these annual positive effects on the environment:

    47,905 pounds of carbon dioxide not released into the atmosphere

    50 barrels of foreign oil not imported

    2,466 gallons of gasoline not consumed

    The project affirms the power of one individual, one family and one group to reverse global warming. As part of the outreach and education component of this effort, Northwest invites other individuals, organizations and Metro Atlanta religious communities to become active partners in this endeavor.

    Our video is located at

    To assuage all forms of carbon guilt, individuals can purchase a Northwest Unitarian Universalist Carbon Indulgence to offset their carbon footprint. To avoid the fires of eternal damnation and global warming, they can choose to make a tax deductible donation to the NWUUC Solar PV Module Project. For more information, email office AT

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  4. 4. nfiertel 10:38 pm 02/26/2009

    What with all the propaganda regarding imported oil, consider just where that oil comes from…The largest source is now Canada which is a close ally of the US. The carbon footprint of the Athabasca Oil Sands is one four hundredth of the carbon footprint of the US’s coal fired electricity plants. In other words, drive your car and get off the grid instead of the other way around…There is no replacement yet for diesel trucks and really, no replacement yet for the car other than small hybrids for now. In them meantime I suggest that the National Geographic has done the US a great disservice in the unbalanced article regarding Alberta’s gigantic and friendly oil reserves. Keep it in mind if US policies make this oil not imported into the US. China is going to buy it all and the US will be eking out energy sources from where exactly? In the long run to be sure, solar will be a serious contender for civilian needs but in the meantime, don’t be foolishly cutting your bridges by shutting down the upgrader and mining operations north of your border due to a naive belief that you can do without it now..You cannot unless of course you want to hold your noses and buy oil from enemy nations and be beholding to the Saudis and Venezuela. I would love a solar assisted heater for my house also but in the meantime, think clearly about the present situation which is not going to change overnight.

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  5. 5. Scott Hunter 12:13 pm 03/2/2009


    Let me know if you need any questions answered. The Office of Clean Energy recommends that prospective investors interview at least three vendors experienced with the technology and applications of interest. We have a courtesy listing of vendors on our website at but offer no endorsements. And we also have customer service representatives able to answer any questions regarding the New Jersey Clean Energy Program at 1-866-njsmart.


    B. Scott Hunter
    Renewable Energy Program Administrator
    Office of Clean Energy
    New Jersey Board of Public Utilities
    Two Gateway Center
    Newark, NJ 07102

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  6. 6. Rick Sims 12:35 am 04/27/2011

    Solar panels can be used for a lot more these days. If you have a pool, solar pool heating is an excellent way to save money- especially for New Jersey summers. Some states offer tax cuts for heating your pool with solar panels. I would check it out if you haven’t thought about it before! Here is some more information about solar pool heaters.

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